A Single Swallow

Ghostly memories of love and war (Yuehu village, southeast China, 1943-1945; told 70 years later): A Single Swallow is only the second of nine novels by acclaimed Chinese-born author Zhang Ling1 translated into English. Translations represent only 3% of the total American market. The American Literary Translation Association’s database shows Amazon Crossing publishes the lion’s share, along with mostly Independent Publishers and a few imprints of the major publishing houses? Why so few?

Best answered by experts within the publishing industry, but from this reviewer’s experience the simple answer is whether a book is accessible, or not. This year, I identified one book, translated from Swedish, to rave about, but gave up on translated books from Poland, Japan, Brazil, Colombia, Ukraine, and Turkey, finding them too difficult to read. So it’s with great pleasure to introduce Ling’s accessible, lyrical, and unusual historical fiction offering a rare look inside a top secret mission when America and China worked together after Japan invaded China.

Told through the voices of three men, two American and one Chinese, who love the same young Chinese woman, the novel is unique for both historical and literary reasons. The two woven together powerfully.

The forcefulness lies in the stark contrast between writing so affectingly about two extreme circumstances and emotions: the brutality of war “during strange times, when half the world was on fire” versus the beauty of three men loving a courageous yet fragile, stoic, resilient young woman who’s been the victim of unspeakable horrors and hardships. Written with such eloquence, although reading about the horrors of war is not easy to read. But not because we’re not able to understand the meaning of the translated prose.

Ah Yan is the woman at the center of the novel. Her name means Swallow in Chinese. Swallow is a perfect name for her as she’s so thin, bony, and small she seems bird-like. She privately bears her grief and sorrow, but over the course of the novel we see her strength, “compassion, intuition, and calmness under stress,” and the extraordinary lengths she goes to care for others. That in order “to save herself,” she had to first learn how to become someone “saving others.”

The three men’s voices show “three sides of her person,” alternating in chapters. What’s also unusual is we never hear her voice directly. We don’t often read novels told second-hand, through the second person point of view. Without hearing her side, we don’t have the full story, which we assume is intentional. She’s real but not fully within our grasp.

This dream-like quality to Ah Yan fits the surreal use of magical realism for delivering the men’s stories about her and the war. That’s not such an easy thing to pull off either. Since “the memory of war isn’t the same as the war itself,” mixing reality with the otherworldly is an effective way to make their stories, and hers, feel ghostly as the ghosts of war haunt lives forever.

The Sino-American Cooperative Agreement (SACO) established a “high-intensity,” US Navy training camp in an impoverished and secluded village near the southeastern coast of China, which is where the novel takes place.

US intelligence officer teaching Chinese how to use radio
via Wikimedia Commons

Yuhu was the name of the historical village the author calls Yuehu. “Surrounded by mountains, making it less likely to be attacked, but was still one hundred miles from the area of the Japanese occupation and the sea, putting it within marching distance.” That long distance, combined with a formidable terrain, is where “Americans learned the real meaning of the word ‘walking,’” which they could not have done without the assistance of the Chinese, who knew the land. The primary purpose of the military operation was spying, intelligence gathering, and collecting other information on the enemy, not hand-to-hand combat, but there’s one devastating military incident that’s dramatically described as if the author had been there herself. This scene alone speaks to the veracity of Ling’s research, which included visiting the site and speaking with three Chinese men who’d been part of SACO.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Publishing

The three fictional male characters all heard the surrender speech of the Emperor of Japan on the radio in 1945 that ended the war, known as the Jewel Voice Broadcast. Before they said their goodbyes, they vowed to annually visit this indelible place of memories after they passed away. Which is why we hear their voices seven decades later.

Each loved Ah Yan differently, so each called her a different name: 

Pastor Billy: A US missionary also practicing medicine. He bears witness to Ah Yan’s saving, healing, and maturity “that would’ve taken decades during peacetime.” A fatherly figure twenty years old than Ah Yan, whom he meets when she’s nineteen, he calls her Stella, which he explains “means star,” envisioning her future will shine so she’ll no longer have anything to fear. It will become painfully clear to the reader what crime against her humanity was inflicted on her. To make sure her future will be safer, he teaches her basic medical skills that she soaks up like a sponge, so when the war is over and she’ll have to return to her village she’ll be respected and needed in her community rather than shunned upon. An example of helping us understand a different culture’s traditional norms.

Ian Ferguson: A military training instructor from Chicago, his job is Gunner’s Mate, because he teaches combat skills. We understand a lot about what he does and how the war is going through evocative letters he writes to his mother and other family. The letters are provided via the US Naval archives, which makes the fiction feel real, especially since his fictional commander, Commander Miles, was a real historical figure. His full name was Milton Edward Miles. Even the Commander’s dog, the author calls Ghost, makes his way into his story. Ian called Ah Yan Wende, which means wind in English. To him, she’s “perfection in the moment,” equating her with “the power of the wind, its freedom and its rage.”

Liu Zhaohu, code name 635: From the same village as Ah Yan, Sishiyi Bu, he calls her by her given name. Their fathers are brothers; his father works for her father’s tea plantation. He became a soldier to save China from the Japanese. “Patriotism is born in the mind, a few steps from the heart, but was not yet a heart-wrenching pain,” he says, an example of how the prose of a wartime novel can be poetic. Ferguson is his teacher.

The novel could have still been inaccessible to American audiences if the translation wasn’t as superb as it is. Ling deserves all the credit for communicating the universal language of love and war, but credit is also due to Shelly Bryant, the translator, based on how vividly and movingly the novel reads. Bryant is an Oklahoma native who lives in Shanghai and Singapore, nominated for several translation prizes. She’s also a writer of novels, short stories, and poetry.

The brief Epilogue is brilliant, intensifying the feeling of whether this is a piece of history, or fictional? Together, a stirring, secreted piece of American-Chinese WWII history showing us that “facing death is a form of bravery, but so is facing life.”

Lorraine

1 Zhang Ling lives in Toronto, Canada, but was in Wenzhou, China during the COVID-19 lockdown. The subject of her next book, a work of non-fiction. 

Leave a Comment

One Night Two Souls Went Walking

Down-to-earth in seeking the otherworldly, spiritual being (most likely set in New England in the 2010s): Looking for a unique book for these unique times? Something that wraps you in kindness, selflessness, and faith, but you don’t have to be religious for it to speak to you? Suggestion: a novel full of grace, with prose that’s not just literal but figurative, even in its poetic title, One Night Two Souls Went Walking. 

Ellen Cooney is a provocative writer. What could be more provocative than opening her tenth novel on page one, line one with this elusive, existential question: “What is a soul?”

Cooney taught creative writing for years at a number of colleges in Boston, Massachusetts. She thought she’d be a poet or a playwright when she grew up. Like poetry and plays, she says so much in the fewest words needed – a little over two-hundred pages– and does so with warmth and wisdom without coming across as preachy or judgmental.

To do that, she’s created a unique character – the narrator – who embraces all the goodness, kindness, and empathy we wish everyone had. She’s chosen not to name her, except to refer to her by the only name that matters: Reverend. Ever since this extraordinary young woman (in her thirties) was a child she imagined fairy-tale-like visions of the meaning of life. She didn’t have words for what she dreamt or witnessed in “a flicker, a glimmer,” so she called it “the other thing.” That’s when something happened in fleeting moments in her everyday life that shined lightness and beauty; that told her there’s more to life than the ordinary. Something amazing and mysterious. Everyone in her big, loud family was too caught up with their athletic lives so they treated her as different, though they do love and care about her. “It can be lonely for me in my family,” this noble girl felt because they were all busy with sports while she was asking about souls. The story she tells spans about six years of her life tending to broken souls, feeling hers was too.

Our narrator also asks, “Can a soul speak to another soul?” Through a series of vignettes about the people who touched her life over six years as the chaplain of a medical center when she worked the night shift (due to budget cuts), the loneliest of hours, she shows us she’s blessed with an exceptional gift of finding a way to speak to another soul; her boss, whom she calls Head, told her the same thing.

In this medical setting, the souls she tells us something defining about them are sick, elderly, victims of disasters, and dying. Mostly, she leaves them unnamed too, identifying them instead by their interests, professions, or what they look like. A simple yet personalized characteristic. These descriptors, and the briefness of chapters, emphasize their encounters may have been brief but they’re not forgotten. Cooney does a marvelous job of weaving them together, as memories of them pop up in the chaplain’s thoughts. Yes, we remember you.

The effect is this doesn’t feel like a short story collection. Rather, a poignant, life-affirming novel connecting people from all walks of life who are sad, lonely, have regrets, hard lives, were discriminated against, who have a common, urgent need or longing to find peace from their psychic pain, before many leave this world.

The poetic title refers to two souls. There’s several versions of who these two souls might be. Scenes that actually happened, and an especially vivid one that’s dream-like, mystical, which fits this abstract, invisible notion of a soul. And, of course, there’s a collection of souls the Reverend has been summoned to sit by their bedside, or be with a family member in the Consolation Room, where she metaphorically walks with them as she comforts them.

These souls include: an older, black, proud librarian who worked herself up from a hidden person toiling in a basement promoted to reference librarian where she was seen, needed, and respected. When the minister meets her she’d been content living in an assisted living facility until she had a bad fall and was admitted to the medical center, where she conceded she “might need attention to my soul here.” A demanding lawyer in his fifties whose life depended on facts, evidence, who woke up during a medical procedure and thought he’d arrived at the “roof of the world.” A teenage boy, Surfer, who had a tragic accident that paralyzed him, with whom she patiently sat with until she gained his trust, helping him see waves as “holy,” that it was all not in vain; Doctor Brown Hair who confided something was “hiding in my soul”; an elderly man who hadn’t been diagnosed with dementia but starting “acting weirdly,” for whom the Reverend diagnosed as looking for “a way out of his soul.” These sad, resonating stories are sometimes told with humor, and show another unique quality of the narrator: she lies if she can offer someone a way out of their soul.

Some stories remind the chaplain of her own past, so that’s sprinkled in here too, often in magical moments like her childhood dream of “me and my soul are riding our planet,” escaping daily life to someplace heavenly. Bits and pieces of glimpsing the light, reminding us there’s more to life than what we see.

Two important characters who are not patients move us because they’re men the chaplain falls in love with during these soul-searching years working in the darkness of night, feeling how much she deserves to be loved for who she is. Of the two, Plummy (he loves plums) is the one we feel she’s meant to be with; she sensed he was an “old soul” at nineteen, she approaching thirty. Fascinated by near-death experiences, they were two souls who walked together. But she was concerned about their age differences, the fairness, the morality, of impacting his life at the cusp of a career as a neuroscientist when she was settled in her own. Their relationship remains a source of unresolved angst.

It’s been five years since Ellen Cooney wrote her last, soulful novel, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and other Chances (reviewed here).

In her novel about rescuing abused dogs, Cooney made it perfectly clear her heart broke when dogs were treated cruelly. This time, she’s made it perfectly clear she wasn’t finished with making sure we understood that dogs have souls too; souls that can rescue people like the hospital souls rescued the chaplain.

The most likely version of which two souls are referred to in the title is a tribute to the indelible memory of a therapy dog, “an animal with dignity,” whom she does name, Bobo Boy. The two did go walking one night together. It can also refer to another therapy dog, Eddie, she goes walking with, more like flying at the end of this strong boxer’s leash, in a dream-like scene, reflective of the ghost of Bobo Boy. The souls of dogs with therapeutic abilities, and the bond between humans and dogs, adds a unique touch to this collective story about respecting the dignity of all living souls.

Cooney owns three dogs, and now lives on an island in Maine. We can picture her peacefully walking with her dogs buoyed by so much beauty, feeling lightness and hopefulness. She’s found a poetic, literary way to share that with us.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Austen Years: A Memoir in 5 Novels

Newfound perspectives on Jane Austen’s novels during life-changing events over years (Boston and Chicago, 2012 to present-day): How do you cope when your “world shattered”?

If you’re Rachel Cohen, a widely-read scholar who grew up as a “lonely, reading child,” when she was going through a period of traumatic events later in her life, she became consumed reading novels that gave her things she didn’t have: “definiteness, endings known, bearable, even triumphant.” But unlike millions of readers passionate about Jane Austen, this University of Chicago English professor of creative nonfiction – “biography, art history, the lyric essay, literary criticism, and memoir” – was “appalled” her reading life had narrowed exclusively to Austen over many years, especially since she’d considered Austen’s works less complex than she discovered upon further study. 

The Austen Years tracks Cohen’s seven-year journey when she “repeatedly” re-read five of Austen’s six novels, leaving Northanger Abbey out because Austen hadn’t “solved it to her satisfaction,” which matched Cohen’s view that it was “opaque.” These were years of personal upheaval, when the dad she was so close to was hospitalized and then passed away a year later around the same time she gave birth to her first child, a daughter she calls S; later a second child, a son, T. 

Two extreme emotions – grief and sadness, joy and the daunting responsibilities of motherhood – drove Cohen to seek out qualities and characters in Austen’s world that were comforting. She wasn’t expecting guidance, rather, understanding. Austen “is often not going to be guidance,” she says, but “understanding,” which actually takes “a long time.” Cohen’s inward journey began sometime after 9/11 when the world we knew also shattered.

via Flickr user Tiendq [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

The author is intellectually patient; asks us to be too. She’s a deep thinker who offers new perspectives on Austen’s appeal and timelessness. Unless you’ve recently read most of Austen’s novels so they’re fresh in your mind, expect to miss some of the memoir’s richness of thought. Still, you’ll feel energized by what you learn and glean.

In an excellent article, psychotherapist and English professor Wendy Jones, who wrote Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen, asks, “Why so many people love Austen so intensely, and in such a personal way?” She offers insight into the allure for Cohen going through enormous emotional turmoil as a “profound need for empathy, that we’re not alone.” Empathy, more specific than comfort, better explains what Cohen found.

Interestingly, Jones describes our need for empathy as not just during our “sorrows,” but “our joys” too. This illuminates the unusual aspect of Cohen’s memoir, the dual perspectives of Cohen’s relationship to Austen, which mixes seeing things in Austen’s world Cohen wished she had with seeing similarities in her life in Austen’s novels and life. Jones calls these “two kinds of empathy, of recognizing and feeling recognized.”

The Austen Years is probably the least understood book I’ve reviewed that I’ve enjoyed so much. Cohen has devoted a lot of time analyzing a great 19th century British writer resonating so well today, so she has a lot to say. Our tendency may be to put down a book we don’t fully understand, but you don’t feel that way at all. Instead, you’re compelled to take in as much as you can.

As for similarities between Cohen’s world and Austen’s, there’s many, starting with balancing darkness and lightness. Cohen sees the same in Austen’s novels: “Jane Austen wrote in alternation, darker books and lighter ones, dimmer ones of sorrow and bewilderment next to brighter ones of comedy and clarity.”

Austen’s novels may be on your bucket list of classics you want to read/re-read, so it’s likely the memoir will encourage you to do so sooner than later. If so, Cohen suggests beginning with Sense and Sensibility since it’s “a little easier to find the beautiful rhythm that comes in the rest of the books.” That does not mean it’s her favorite. Hands down Persuasion is, including the main character Anne Elliott, whom she loves. The attraction is seen when Cohen writes “nearly everyone in her book [referring to Persuasion] is mourning, in different ways”; and when she characterizes Anne as “quiet, modest, passionate, and alone,” which is how Cohen comes across grieving the loss of one life while bringing a new one into the world.

Readers devoted to re-reading Austen, the Janeites, attest to how many times you can re-read her novels and discover something new, like Cohen. She admits she “missed huge parts of the plots” on the first go-arounds, attributing that to knowing “little of what other people had found in Austen. I had not worked at history, interpretation, biography. I had been too much alone.” Her memoir does not make the same mistake, as her interpretations included consulting a multitude of resources – books, articles, essays, letters, literary critics, historians, writers, friends. Enough to fill fifteen pages in her Notes and Bibliography. These references are printed in a tiny font, which makes them feel even more exhaustive.

One writer she consulted may surprise you, Ta-Nehisi Coates. We associate him with his award-winning books on racism, not the genteel world of Jane Austen. Coates is also a columnist for The Atlantic magazine, who wrote an article in 2011 saying:

“I think Austen erects the most gorgeous and intricate sentences. They move with force in one direction, and with an incredible suddenness turn back on themselves. You think you’re reading one thing, when in fact, you’re reading something else.”

This, of course, is Cohen’s takeaway too. A good example is Sense and Sensibility. She’d thought it a “romantic comedy” – like most of us likely do – but upon closer examination concluded it’s also a “novel of grief.” Reflecting on mourning, Cohen says “grief runs through the whole of life and leaves nothing untouched.” So, it runs through the whole of her memoir, giving it a melancholy tone, despite the wonder of motherhood.

Cohen goes so far as to count how many times crying appears in Sense and Sensibility: twenty-three. That statement alone speaks volumes about the integrity, the thoughtfulness, of her efforts. This may explain why she doesn’t name her daughter, her son, and her husband, M. These impersonal attributions may make her family feel distant and put you off a bit since we want everything to feel intimate, but you do sense she’s given the same seriousness to protecting her family as she gives to the rigor of her work. Note: she dedicates her memoir to all three family members by name, so they’re not really hidden. She’s a serious person. That doesn’t mean parts of her memoir aren’t intimate, like her long years of her uneven relationship with M before they married. She’s kept her family at a distance since her memoir is focused mostly on her relationship, her journey, with Jane Austen.

The one family member she wants us to know is the wonderful man she’s mourning: her father, Michael Cohen. He’s full of warmth, fun, and intellectual curiosity. We see how he instilled in his daughter the same curiosity and excitement for the exchange of ideas. He was “beloved” as a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. An esteemed expert in organizational theory, particularly the “character” or culture of organizations.

Michael Cohen’s daughter wants us to understand the loss of a great man as much as the greatness of Jane Austen.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Monogamy

Dissecting a thirty-year marriage (Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1970’s to 2015): What do you do when you learn your husband of thirty-years has betrayed you? When you thought your marriage was the envy of others?

In the six years it took Sue Miller to write her eleventh novel about contemporary families and marriages, she’s had time to get to know Annie and Graham, the characters whose long marriage seemed so happy and contented but maybe it wasn’t. Like Miller, Annie has time for reflections, which gives her a “slowly transforming sense of him.”

That quote was taken from the author’s Dear Reader note she wrote introducing her new novel, saying, “she was struck with how the writing of” her 2001 memoir about losing her father to Alzheimer’s, The Story of My Father, had affected her perspective of him once she dissected his life. These words are instructive since she goes on to say, “that it was only years later that I began to imagine exploring that experience fictionally.” Monogamy is that story: a thoughtful, unwinding story of a thirty-year marriage marked by love and warmth but also betrayal, which over time allowed for some level of acceptance, gratitude, forgiveness, healing.

Annie is a photographer. She sees things in the moment more clearly through her camera, much like Miller who perceptively delves into the emotional feelings of her characters through the lens of her sensitive prose. Miller is not an author whose characters wrote the story for them. They’re in her head; so is the story. She writes to fill in the blanks. 

While this may not sound like an original story, it’s what Miller brings to it that makes it so. Ever since she stepped onto the literary stage over thirty years ago with The Good Mother, she’s earned a reputation for her emotional understanding of her characters. I seem to recall critics calling it chic-lit. No one should be calling Monogamy anything but literary fiction. The best kind because we can easily relate to the complexity of it, which is why it’s an immensely satisfying, questioning read, if you like your novels to evolve over time.

Written in the third person, the narrator is introspective; Annie portrayed much more so than Graham until he wakes up too late to his “more or less bottomless hungry,” “greedy” self. He’s the exuberant partner, so this is a tale of opposite personalities attracted to each other.

Graham “has always been passionate about life, women, food, books, music, booze.” He’s a big man physically, and in his overwhelming presence. At one point, Annie confides to an old girlfriend, a playwright, Edith, how angry she is “that he took up all that psychic space. That he took me up.” Graham poignantly finally realizes that too. When he does, he’s overcome by a “sudden deeper remorse” that “he forgot her life, going on around his.” His confession tugs at our emotions, betwixt and between about the couple. They’re both good people, and also flawed. We admire Graham’s lust for life, but not the pain he brings to his wife who has a history of sensitivity to his needs and a willingness to let him be. And yet, she could have/should have stood up for herself somewhere along the line.

The inside flap of the novel gives away what reviewers call spoilers. It comes around a third of the way in. Suffice it to say that the rest of the novel has a sorrowful tone as Annie looks back on her memories, analyzing the man her world revolved around. Another character, Frieda, Graham’s ex-wife, who still carries a torch for him, with whom Annie has maintained a friendship with over the years that deepens with ramifications, reminds us that Annie is someone who “pondered things, she took things seriously” and is “dignified.” Which is why we feel far more empathy for Annie than Graham, but we do understand him.  

Frieda and Annie not only shared a husband, but they also share a son, Lucas. He went through a difficult childhood missing his dad. Sarah, Annie and Graham’s daughter, had a lonely adolescence, too, but Sarah was in the house with her father and still missed him. You’ll like both children – one who works on her self-image, perfects her “velvety” voice and musical tastes to become a radio host; the other who followed in his dad’s book-loving footsteps, working for a book publisher. Loving books and other forms of art delight and run throughout.

Sarah and Lucas, while not meant to be afterthoughts, don’t take center stage since this is meant to be a novel about parents more consumed with themselves, with unintended consequences. They love their children, but they’ve been overlooked.

Graham’s the extrovert. He owns a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts near Harvard Square. Annie met him at the gala opening. Gregarious and energetic, he loves celebrations, parties, entertaining. Annie’s reserved and private, though Graham has brought her out of her quiet shell, seen through their frequent, warm gatherings with friends, she a gracious host.

Like Miller does with Graham, she wants us to understand Annie’s character, and how much her art means to her. When the novel opens, she’s set to have a gallery show, a big deal for someone who put her art second to her marriage and yes, motherhood. By sprinkling in the names of artists Annie likes, we get a visual picture of her as a person and an artist. References include Danish painter Hammershøi; French painters Pierre Bonnard and Antoine Vuillard; and American photographers Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe, who shocked with his intimate, sexual, black-and-white pictures. The first three artists are known for their quietly intimate works of everyday things; Mapplethorpe and Goldin offer a raw side of intimacy. Annie, like Graham, like all of us, should not be stereotyped, and they’re not.

Vilhelm Hammershøi
via Wikimedia
[CC BY-SA 3.0]
Édouard Vuillard
via Wikimedia
[CC BY 3.0]

Similarly, the novel is intimate and sensual. Annie and Graham enjoy a satisfying sexual life. The sensuality is also expressed in the “sense of loveliness that made everything possible,” including an appreciation of Nature.

While the timeframe is unclear, there’s enough cultural and political references to get our bearings. For instance, there’s mention of the Blue Parrot Café, which flourished in the seventies. Anyone who was in Cambridge back then, myself included, knows Miller has instilled the free spirit of a place and an era. For some, there’s an element of nostalgia going on here too. Certainly all the community at Graham’s lively bookstore — boy do we miss that in 2020! At the other end of the time spectrum, there’s mention of McCain’s presidential campaign and Obama’s second term in office, so we can estimate when the novel ends. Not specifying the precise time period adds to the novel’s universality.

 When Annie’s friend Edith says, “We read fiction because it has a shape, and we feel . . . consoled.” That’s how it feels to read Monogamy.

In another insightful scene, Annie is having a conversation with an author she met when the two were writers-in-residence at the MacDowell artist colony. She asked him to describe the book he’d written. While he gave her a quick synopsis, he said, “I don’t want to tell you what I think it’s most deeply about, or what you’re supposed to think about what it’s about.” This is the same message Miller achieves.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Beneficence

Deep-rooted grief comforted by a place of simple beauty (Maine, 1947 – 1965): How would you define a literary​ masterpiece? Would you think it over-the-top to characterize an author’s first novel as a masterpiece? These questions are asked because Beneficence​ ​moves us with so much pathos and so much grace and beauty, and it’s Meredith Hall’s debut novel. 

Years from now, Beneficence is one of those novels that sticks with you. Not in the details, but in the rendering of a once-upon-a-time, happy family of five, the Senters, who suffered for at least ten, fourteen years, from profound grief, which stays inside them forever. 

In 1988, Princeton University convened a forum to consider the literary questions posed. What’s reported doesn’t provide conclusive answers, art is so subjective anyway, but a couple of things stand out: “it would be a shame not to read” the book, if it “lays claim to universality and is therefore a lesson in humanity.” By this standard alone, Beneficence is a literary feat. 

Elsewhere, googling, you’ll find references about the power of the prose to affect us emotionally, including triggering feelings about beauty. This too, fits Hall’s first novel.

Along the internet way, I discovered a word that describes someone who loves beauty: philocalist. Some Senters, and the author based on her memoir discussed below, sense beauty as something sacred and blessed. “We are blessed with the gift of loving this beauty” is a remarkable spirit in a novel about a family coming apart, from a tragic accident. We may attribute this outlook to something spiritual, mystical, but the novel attributes it to a “willingness to believe in some sort of goodness.”

A strong sense of place — a “handsome” yet “simple” dairy-farm in Maine, and the northern land it encompasses — offers beneficence.

Hall’s debut novel was so compelling, I felt compelled to read her memoir written in 2008, Without A Map, ​which is as gorgeously written and profoundly moving. Beneficence shines all by itself, but packaged with her memoir it provides insight into the depth of her personal losses that enables her fictional artistry. 

Like Beneficence, ​Hall’s memoir is stunning in the intensity and longevity of unbearable grief, guilt, shame, loneliness, abandonment, and yearning for forgiveness. Hall’s “hunger for love” led to becoming pregnant at sixteen, then mercilessly was thrown out of her childhood home and her divorced father’s home, by parents she loved. “Shunned,” homeless, and destitute, somehow she never lost her deep appreciation of life and nature’s beauty. She’s injected this gift into her fictional family. 

Hall’s real life trauma is entwined into her fictional trauma, even in the novel’s setting. We’re told Beneficence ​takes place in Alstead, Maine, but the town doesn’t seem to exist; Alstead, New Hampshire does. New Hampshire is where Hall’s universe collapsed, and now the Senters fall apart in the same town. 

Forced to abandon her newborn, whom Hall wasn’t even permitted to see, she descended into an “encompassing sorrow” that devolved into her “private and interior devastation.” This is precisely what happens to the Senters, most dysfunctionally to Doris, the loving mother of three children who loses one, emotionally abandoning her family for years. “The grief I carry every single day has burrowed deep,” Hall wrote in her memoir, the same devastation Doris feels; Tup, her husband, too but differently. Of course, the children are also impacted.

In Without A Map, ​Hall still wants to “absorb all the wisdom and beauty of the human soul,” which is extraordinary after what she went through. Again, she wants all the sadness of Beneficence to be infused with this quality of sensitivity.

Motherhood is far-reaching, all-inclusive, as seen through the voices of three of the four remaining family members: Doris, Tup, and their only daughter, Dodie, whose forced to mother the son who survived; assume the domestic duties; and take on a greater share of the farmwork at roughly the same age the author was thrown into adulthood. 

Since neither sons’ voice tells their perspective, the reader won’t find out whether it’s Sonny, the eldest, or Beston/Best, the youngest, who is the buried child until the end of Part One, Before​. 

The Maine farm, passed down from five generations, brings joy despite the story being told after the Depression and the end of WWII. Joy is for the simple yet meaningful and beautiful things in life, which readers are mourning and thinking about during these historically traumatic times. For all the blessedness that runs through the Before chapters, Doris’ words on page one are foreboding, saying, “I was the one who was supposed to keep an eye on the children.” 

Doris has a desperate need for forgiveness. But she’s not the only one seeking forgiveness, because no one is actually sure what happened in fleeting moments that consume lives. Doris’ withdrawal results in Dodie’s heroic and painful persistence, emphasizing that Dodie has lost her youth like Hall did. 

A major difference between fact and fiction is that the Senters are tethered to and committed to one physical place, whereas Hall spent years wandering the globe. The farmhouse has a comforting, “lived-in” feeling, while Hall had no place to even shelter in. The theme of Home looms large and essential. The farm is thriving from plenty of hard, “good work,” but no matter how hard Hall’s life descends, or the goodness in her heart, she has to sell the clothes on her back to eat, barely. Tup’s love for his distraught wife regardless of his sacrifices over the years, echoes some of the helplessness Hall endured. 

Cycling through the seasons on the farm serves as a “rescue of order” against all that’s “aching sweet and unbearable.” The Maine farm is this family’s map​, the map ​Meredith Hall spent years without. 

We’re relieved Hall’s life finally turned around. At age forty-four, she graduated college; found her own family to love; taught creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. After all the years of pain and suffering, can the Senters move on? 

Seeking the answer to that question keeps you turning pages, but make no mistake it’s the simple eloquence of the prose that compels you on, reflecting how I felt compelled to read Without A Map ​after inhaling Beneficence. 

Once Hall was without a map, there was only a Before and After. Fictionally, she stretches out the rawness and endurance of grief, adding more Parts: During​, After​, and Here​. Throughout the sorrow, Hall’s characters are washed over by “a quiet sort of peace.” She’s created people who believe “there is nothing more elegant than the head of a white-tail deer.” Who, when they allow themselves to take a break, go ice skating and can still enjoy “the feeling of ice carved by our skates with a rasping swoosh . . . skimming smoothly and effortlessly into the light.” 

The comfort of light is expressed repeatedly — the “the soft light of home,” the “dawn light in the kitchen calling us to the next day,” the “low morning light.” Characters who are, or were, able to be in the moment. 

Wisdom comes in accepting that “we ride this planet with all its sorrow and all its love and all its beauty and all its hard mysteries.” That “the great price of love and attachment is loss.” And to keep reminding ourselves “every day is a gift.”

Lorraine

Leave a Comment